As part of my dissertation on the ritualization of Mormon history, I have been researching the use of pioneer symbolism in both mainstream American and Mormon public memory. I’ve put together some basic thoughts on this subject for this post today, my third guest post here at Juvenile Instructor. You can find the others here and here.
The concept of public memory is central to what I want to talk about today. By this, I mean the ideas that a people may have about their history, ideas that help a society not only understand its past, but more importantly also its present and future. It reveals essential issues present in every society: issues of organization, of power structures, of the actual meaning of past and present as experienced by different societal groups. I’m operating on the premise that ultimately, how we think about the past is grounded in how we think about the present. Shaping public memory is a contested practice and involves a struggle for authority and domination between ideologies (Bodnar 13), often expressing itself as a conflict between ‘official cultures’ (civic and business leaders, for example) and ‘vernacular cultures’ (‘ordinary people’) .
According to Bodnar, the pioneer became a popular symbol during a time of economic centralization and urban and industrial growth, especially in the Midwest. For ordinary people, the pioneer came to symbolize their (fictionalized) ancestors: people who worked hard, overcame many hardships, preserved traditions, and ultimately founded the (ethnic) communities they were living in. Towards the end of the 19th century, civic leaders (often representing business interests) began trying to regulate and shape commemorative behavior and public memory. In the 20th century, the move towards centralization meant that public memory would be shaped even more by state power–not ignoring pluralistic interests, per se, but certainly privileging its own position over more vernacular ones. In this manner, we can see how vernacular interests celebrated their pioneer ancestors for achievements relevant to life in their community, while official interests began to honor them for patriotic ideals and contributions to nation-building, co-opting commemorative value. In return, ordinary citizens acknowledged this ideal of loyalty but privileged the personal dimension of patriotism over an overly public dimension. In essence (I’m painting with very broad strokes here, bear with me!), the story of the pioneer symbol in American culture is an at times uneasy dance, in which the pioneer was typically used as a local, vernacular symbol that competes with nationalistic symbols of more powerful interests, occasionally appropriated by official interests and re-appropriated by locals. 
This is all still fairly straightforward. For me, it gets interesting when we think about the use of the pioneer symbol in LDS culture, not because Mormons use the pioneer symbol in radically different ways (although sometimes they do), but because the vernacular gets flipped on its head, so to speak. We can find many instances in which Mormon public memory is constructed much along the lines of their Midwestern counterparts. However, as Madsen points out, the LDS Church, a “powerful institutional hierarchy” (60) has appropriated the symbol.  So we have a vernacular symbol, appropriated by an institution, and given a transnational bent (more on that later).
In many ways, the same strategies used by American official culture can be seen in the LDS Church’s deployment of this symbol. Bodnar argues that aspiring leaders clothed themselves in pioneer garb in order to legitimize their own positions, for example by organizing commemorations focusing on pioneer heritage (Bodnar 123).  I would argue that statements such as these, “My mom was a descendant of pioneers who sacrificed everything for the Church and the kingdom of God,” made by Elder David A. Bednar in General Conference, function in much the same way.  Though pioneer ancestors are definitely not a prerequisite of being a worthy member of the LDS Church, they certainly function as a kind of shorthand, a code, if you will, with some legitimizing power.
Where it gets fascinating for me personally is the transnational element I alluded to earlier. What does it mean when Mongolian Saints, so far from Utah and/or the United States, engage in a handcart trek? These Mongolians, pulling handcarts and dressed in aprons and bonnets or suspenders and cowboy hats, passed self-made signs designating the Mongolian terrain as “Illinois”, “Nebraska”, “Wyoming”, and the “Sweetwater River” and met yaks along the way in an interesting juxtaposition of realities.  Along similar lines, what does it mean when an art project meant to capture the life of members in Ghana encapsulates them (and their “amazing stories”) as pioneers? 
It will come as no surprise that the Liahona makes frequent references to non-American Saints as pioners, or that German-born Dieter Uchtdorf says this about himself, “I have no ancestors among the nineteenth-century pioneers. However, since the first days of my Church membership, I have felt a close kinship to those early pioneers who crossed the plains. They are my spiritual ancestry, as they are for each and every member of the Church, regardless of nationality, language, or culture.”  Here, pioneer heritage transcends genealogical boundaries, allowing all that feel a kinship to claim it.
This transnational element illustrates the complexity of the pioneer symbol. In this transnational context, I would argue that the cultural power of the comparison lies in the very fact that it can serve both the needs of a smaller space (a branch in Mongolia, say), and larger structures (the LDS Church as a whole). It allows communities to band together, to rally around a common symbol, whether their need comes from a feeling of being a ‘peculiar people’ in a differently-peculiar culture, or the reality that being a non-American Saint often does place you in a minority position on several fronts. This symbol is so powerful because it does all that, and yet also serves as an important reminder that the hardships you are facing now are nothing new. You will overcome them, this too shall pass. And in the meantime, “Come, Come Ye Saints” is there to keep you company along the way–pioneer clothing optional.
 See John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, 1992.
 Bodnar makes this distinction not based on class (with ‘ordinary people’ referring to working class Americans) but on access to the kind of power structures and/or actual organizations that have a hand in shaping public memory from an official perspective.
 See Bodnar, chapters 1-3 for a more detailed description of this process.
 Madsen, “The Sanctification of Mormon Historical Geography.” Geographies of Religions and Belief Systems 1.1 (2006): 51-73.
 Bodnar meant this figuratively, but I can’t help but think here of the practice of buying or making pioneer clothes in order to have a more “authentic” trek experience as well as the ‘subversive bonnets’ raffled off by fMh to benefit a single mom scholarship fund. Same root idea, two radically different outcomes.
 Elder David A. Bednar, “The Powers of Heaven”, General Conference April 2012.
 Full disclosure: the Mongolians did the trek, but the story only made it onto the LDS Church New website by dint of being told by an American serving in that mission, Elder Hunt. Not a single Mongolian voice was directly recorded in that article.
 “Pioneers in Ghana”, Ensign, July 2009. The artwork is worth viewing here.
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Heeding the Voice of the Prophets,” Liahona and Ensign, July 2008.